Introduction to Fire Alarms

Automation is essential in our industry. We have machines that regulate our air temperature, that provide a constant supply of hot and cold water, that control massive industrial processes, and more. Employees, clients, and managers want to just walk in, be comfortable, and get to work. We all overlook one of the most essential, automated things we have: the Fire Safety System.



Old Fire Safety

The hardware we use for safety today has a remarkably long history. Fire suppression can be traced at least as far back as Leonardo Da Vinci, who’s sprinkler system essentially washed away an entire kitchen. Fire alarms go back to the 1600s, when there were literal patrols in search of fire, much as police patrol in search of crime or emergencies. Overtime, there were systems of telegraphs used for fire alarms and gun powder triggered sprinklers.

These older systems spread for their insurance benefits. A building with a sprinkler system would have significantly cheaper insurance rates. It would ultimately pay for itself. The difference between sprinklers and no sprinklers is that significant.


Modern Fire Safety

Today, things are more extensive. Telegraph alarm systems and gun powder sprinklers gave way to extensive electronics that interact with every single part of your building.

It all starts with the sensors and detectors. In a modern system, every single smoke detector has a unique ID and name in the system. If the elevator maintenance room detector is triggered, the fire panel knows to shutdown that elevator, even to fire fighters, and set building-wide alarms. If a guest room smoke detector goes off, the alarm knows just to set the alarm for that room, because someone was probably smoking. If further detectors go off, it knows to spread the alarm to the whole building.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. Sensors on the pipes, not too different from HVAC Flow Sensors can detect when a sprinkler has been activated. Others on the sprinkler supply pipes can detect if someone has tried to tamper with the sprinklers, such as in an arson case. CO2 detectors can read hazardous levels and direct all or part of the building to evacuate.  All this without even talking about pull stations, purpose-built smoke management fans, and alarms triggered by grabbing fire extinguishers. The granularity is amazing. And so are the responses these systems can have.


Integration with HVAC

I bet you thought this wasn’t related to our industry? Well, it is! The fire panel in your building is probably connected to everything. It can shutdown your boiler, AC, circulating fans, elevators, and even disable card reader locks. Then things go a step farther. It’s possible to commandeer  your hardware as well.

Suppose you have a large warehouse, with roof mounted air ducts. A fire breaks out, the room would quickly fill with smoke, wouldn’t it?  What if we vented that smoke? Certain configurations, connected to your fire panel, can switch the roof mounted fans and blowers to exhaust. The smoke can be sucked out of the building. There’s more to it than that, managing air flow and how much of a vacuum is created, but that’s the nutshell of using your air flow systems for smoke management.

Additional connections exist as well, for things like your elevators. Within the US, and most countries in the world, laws exist that all elevators must have overrides for fire fighters. As soon as the alarm goes off, the panel signals a recall to all elevators, pulling them to a ground or lobby level floor. They’ll only move from there with a fire key. At the same time, these fire keys, will bypass all floor calls even when there is no active alarm.

In more complex, less office space, more industrial space settings, these integrations go deeper. Alarms can trigger process shutdowns, manage building power, and otherwise be configured to make your business as safe as possible, the second something goes wrong.

In part, this is thanks to the rise of smarter building controls. We use networking to assign IP Addresses to individual sensors and fire panels. We also use networking to assign IP Addresses to individual parts in HVAC and Process controls. As our systems become smarter, we can integrate them and design precise fire procedures so that when bad things happen, they don’t.


Fire panels are basically an expensive, elaborate part of your HVAC and Building Controls. They use the same technologies to do a slightly different thing.

The Wrap Up

There was a lot of summary in this article. We did a lot of research and found a lot of interesting parallels and developments. Let us know if we over simplified something or got something wrong, in the comments below. There was a TON of material we wanted to get sidetracked into, but couldn’t. This is a blog post, not a book.

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